After Wilmington resident Victoria Franz experienced a pregnancy loss, she looked to her faith for support. A simple question she asked her pastor, Msgr. Steven Hurley of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, opened the doors to a new ministry in the Diocese of Wilmington.
Msgr. Hurley suggested Franz contact Colleen Lindsey, the director of the diocesan Office of Family Life. Lindsey connected her with Eileen Gaus, who works part-time in the office, primarily in marriage preparation. Together, they established the “Footprints” ministry for the women and families who have experienced such a loss through miscarriage or stillbirth.
“What I learned on my road to becoming a mom is that the road is not smooth,” Franz said recently. “It’s not smooth at all. I think that women and the people who love them need some extra support during their reproductive journey. The journey does not always end with the baby in the baby carriage.
“Miscarriage has touched my life and the lives of other women I know. I found it to be a physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging experience. I hoped that there might be more spiritual support available.”
Franz called pregnancy loss “pretty invisible.” Not talking about it, she said, has the effect of making women feel “alone and ashamed,” which is not fair because in nearly all cases, they had nothing to do with the loss. The Catholic church, she said, has so many resources available with regard to abortion and for mothers and their babies, but, she said, a piece was missing, at least in the Diocese of Wilmington.
With the Catholic view that life begins at conception, these mothers are losing children, Franz said. It’s a different type of loss than abortion because the women are giving birth, but they don’t have a live baby after that experience.
Pregnancy loss can be either a miscarriage or stillbirth. Miscarriages are defined as the death of a fetus in the womb before it reaches 20 weeks of gestation. A stillbirth occurs after 20 weeks. According to the Mayo Clinic, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, although the number is likely higher because many women don’t know they are pregnant when they miscarry. Most occur because the fetus is not developing normally, not because of anything the mother did.
The risk of miscarriage increases as a woman gets older, particularly after age 35, according to the Mayo Clinic. Other risk factors include previous miscarriages; chronic conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes, use of tobacco, alcohol or illicit drugs; and being over- or underweight.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 100 pregnancies is affected by stillbirth. Each year in the United States, about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States.
Overall, various sources put the number of women who experience pregnancy loss from one in four to one in three.
Franz contacted the diocese, providing them with examples of such ministries in other dioceses, and Gaus also researched what was being done elsewhere. She did much of her work while marriage-preparation classes were being held exclusively online during the pandemic in 2020.
“There is a lot that we can do with this ministry. We started by providing resources for families dealing with early infant death or miscarriages,” Gaus said. Those are available on the website of the Office for Marriage and Family Life.
Franz’s original thought was perhaps the diocese could celebrate a Mass of Remembrance for women and their friends and families. That took place Oct. 15 at St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington, with the pastor, Father Norman Carroll, presiding. Oct. 15 is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Franz did a reading at the Mass.
“We think this Mass is a good day and time for parents and other family members to be surrounded by their family and friends in support of their little ones,” Gaus said.
Gaus is hopeful that the Footprints Ministry will grow and include more resources, including books, websites, virtual and local counseling, Scriptures and intercessions.
“We’re hoping that that is our beginning to helping support these families,” she said.
The name of the ministry was inspired by a quote Gaus once read: “There is no foot too small that it will not leave an imprint in the world.”
Franz is hopeful that the Mass and the ministry will help bring comfort. A pregnancy loss shatters all the projections mothers have about their unborn children and their own lives. The children they lose are never far from their minds. Too often, the topic is kept quiet, but Franz hopes that with some celebrities going public with their experiences of miscarriage and stillbirth, that may be changing.
“It’s just this thing that touches a lot of people and isn’t really talked about,” she said. “My hope is that with this ministry women and the people who love them, which is everybody, will feel less alone, and that the community that’s formed around pregnancy loss becomes a comfort to people who probably feel rather alone in their experience.”